A Bigger Military Budget Won’t Make Us Safer

A Bigger Military Budget Won’t Make Us Safer

March 20, 2024

National security is best advanced not by endlessly preparing for war, but by fostering peace.

In June 2017, US soldiers maneuver an M-777 howitzer so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan.

(AP Photo / US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff)
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

In an age when American presidents routinely boast of having the world’s finest military, where nearly trillion-dollar war budgets are now a new version of routine, let me bring up one vitally important but seldom mentioned fact: making major cuts to military spending would increase US national security.

Why? Because real national security can neither be measured nor safeguarded solely by military power (especially the might of a military that hasn’t won a major war since 1945). Economic vitality matters so much more, as does the availability and affordability of health care, education, housing, and other crucial aspects of life unrelated to weaponry and war. Add to that the importance of a Congress responsive to the needs of the working poor, the hungry and the homeless among us. And don’t forget that the moral fabric of our nation should be based not on a military eternally ready to make war but on a determination to uphold international law and defend human rights. It’s high time for America to put aside its conveniently generic “rules-based order” anchored in imperial imperatives and face its real problems. A frank look in the mirror is what’s most needed here.

It should be simple, really: National security is best advanced not by endlessly preparing for war, but by fostering peace. Yet, despite their all-too-loud disagreements, Washington’s politicians share a remarkably bipartisan consensus when it comes to genuflecting before and wildly overfunding the military-industrial complex. In truth, ever-rising military spending and yet more wars are a measure of how profoundly unhealthy our country actually is.

“The Scholarly Junior Senator From South Dakota”
Such insights are anything but new and, once upon a time, could even be heard in the halls of Congress. They were, in fact, being aired there within a month of my birth as, on August 2, 1963, Democratic Senator George McGovern of South Dakota—later a hero of mine—rose to address his fellow senators about “New Perspectives on American Security.”

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Nine years later, he (and his vision of the military) would, of course, lose badly to Republican Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election. No matter that he had been the one who served in combat with distinction in World War II, piloting a B-24 bomber on 35 missions over enemy territory, even as Nixon, then a Navy officer, amassed a tidy sum playing poker. Somehow, McGovern, a decorated hero, became associated with “weakness” because he opposed this country’s disastrous Vietnam War, while Nixon manufactured a self-image as the staunchest Cold Warrior around, never missing a chance to pose as tough on communism (until, as president, he memorably visited Communist China, opening relations with that country).

But back to 1963, when McGovern gave that speech (which you can read in the Senate Congressional Record, volume 109, pages 13,986–94). At that time, the government was already dedicating more than half of all federal discretionary spending to the Pentagon, roughly the same percentage as today. Yet was it spending all that money wisely? McGovern’s answer was a resounding no. Congress, he argued, could instantly cut 10 percent of the Pentagon budget without compromising national security one bit. Indeed, security would be enhanced by investing in this country instead of buying yet more overpriced weaponry. The senator and former bomber pilot was especially critical of the massive amounts then being spent on the US nuclear arsenal and the absurd planetary “overkill” it represented vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, America’s main competitor in the nuclear arms race. As he put it then: “What possible advantage [can be had] in appropriating additional billions of dollars to build more [nuclear] missiles and bombs when we already have excess capacity to destroy the potential enemy? How many times is it necessary to kill a man or kill a nation?”

How many, indeed? Think about that question as today’s Congress continues to ramp up spending, now estimated at nearly $2 trillion over the next 30 years, on—and yes, this really is the phrase—“modernizing” the country’s nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as well as its ultra-expensive nuclear-missile-firing submarines and stealth bombers. And keep in mind that the United States already has an arsenal quite capable of wiping out life on several Earth-sized planets.

What, according to McGovern, was this country sacrificing in its boundless pursuit of mass death? In arguments that should resonate strongly today, he noted that America’s manufacturing base was losing vigor and vitality compared to those of countries like Germany and Japan, while the economy was weakening, thanks to trade imbalances and the exploding costs of that nuclear arms race. Mind you, back then, this country was still on the gold standard and unburdened by an almost inconceivable national debt, 60 years later, of more than $34 trillion, significant parts of it thanks to this country’s failed “war on terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere across all too much of the planet.

McGovern did recognize that, given how the economy was (and still is) organized, meaningful cuts to military spending could hurt in the short term. So, he suggested that Congress create an Economic Conversion Commission to ensure a smoother transition from guns to butter. His goal was simple: to make the economy “less dependent upon arms spending.” Excess military spending, he noted, was “wasting” this country’s human resources, while “restricting” its political leadership in the world.

In short, that distinguished veteran of World War II, then serving as “the scholarly junior Senator from South Dakota” (in the words of Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia), was anything but proud of America’s “arsenal of democracy.” He wasn’t, in fact, a fan of arsenals at all. Rather, he wanted to foster a democracy worthy of the American people, while freeing us as much as possible from the presence of just such an arsenal.

To that end, he explained what he meant by defending democracy:

When a major percentage of the public resources of our society is devoted to the accumulation of devastating weapons of war, the spirit of democracy suffers. When our laboratories and our universities and our scientists and our youth are caught up in war preparations, the spirit of [freedom] is hampered.

America must, of course, maintain a fully adequate military defense. But we have a rich heritage and a glorious future that are too precious to risk in an arms race that goes beyond any reasonable criteria of need.

We need to remind ourselves that we have sources of strength, of prestige, and international leadership based on other than nuclear bombs.

Imagine if his call had been heeded. This country might today be a far less militaristic place.

Something was, in fact, afoot in the early 1960s in America. In 1962, despite the wishes of the Pentagon, President John F. Kennedy used diplomacy to get us out of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union and then,  » …
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